“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 (ESV).
Viktor is one of over 3,000 people of Ukrainian descent living in the greater Utica/ Rome area of Upstate New York, and one of over a million living in the United States. When the war broke out in Ukraine, I immediately thought of him and his family.
I first met Viktor several years ago when my daughters went on a week-long mission trip to South Carolina with their friend’s church. They came home excited for me to meet the fun youth counselor who had taught them cool songs. As soon as I met Viktor, I understood why all the youth hit it off with him. He was fun and friendly, and possessed a joy for Jesus that was contagious.
My daughters taught the rest of the students at their Christian school one of Viktor’s songs, and it became a favorite during chapel services for years to come.
I reached out to Viktor last week, and he agreed to share his inspiring story.
When Viktor was fifteen, he moved from his small village to the large city of L’viv to attend college. This was a difficult time for Viktor. The economy of his country was depressed, and Viktor was discouraged. One of his friends invited him to go to church. He was curious, so he agreed to go.
“When I went to the church Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I saw somebody open the Bible and start reading it and explain how you can use it practically in your life,” Viktor said. “I was shocked because all my life the Bible was just a big book in the center of the temple, and everybody would come in and kiss it. I never saw anybody reading the Bible.”
During the next few months, Viktor began questioning his beliefs which led him to go back to church.
The pastor invited him to read the Bible with a small group every morning at 6 am before Viktor went to class. Since Viktor was a morning person, he agreed. They were reading through the book of John, and the pastor took the time to answer questions.
Then one night he went to youth group with his old friends.
“The Holy Spirit is here in this place,” the pastor said. “If you feel He is calling you, you are more than welcome to come up front, and we will pray with you.”
“Something happened to me,” Viktor said. “I just saw a light . . . and I just knew I had to go up front, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. And since then, my life completely changed.”
For the first time, Viktor was able to surrender the anger he felt toward God for taking his mother from him when he was only 5 weeks old while she was still in her twenties. The pain of his father abandoning him, and his grandmother dying when he was only three. The abuse he endured at the hands of his aunt who raised him, and the oppression he felt growing up under Soviet rule. This was the beginning of God’s healing power in Viktor’s life.
For the first time, Viktor understood what it meant to be truly free. The Bible verses he had been studying suddenly made sense. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 (ESV)
“I started reading my Bible every day, and I was inspired to go into ministry, to serve Jesus,” Viktor said.
Viktor’s pastor suggested that he join the Discipleship Training Program in Ternopil led by Youth With a Mission (YWAM). Viktor was accepted into the program.
The program consisted of three months of training which focused on personal growth and evangelism followed by a mission trip. They went first to Russia where they spent a week in Perm for a conference, then they took a week-long train ride to Kyrgyzstan.
Viktor described Kyrgyzstan as beautiful, clean, and very poor. Viktor was assigned to work with a daily kids’ Bible camp. “The country is Muslim,” Viktor said. “Kids were wandering everywhere on the streets without parents supervising. We would go out on the streets and invite the children and send them to ask permission from their parents. Many of the children came to church, and we were teaching them about God, and I was teaching them Christian songs.”
Viktor returned home after two months on the mission field ready to learn more about the Bible. He enrolled in Odesa Theological Seminary in Ukraine. After two years of traveling back and forth for classes, he earned his Associate in Leadership of Small Ethnical Groups.
During Viktor’s first job as a youth pastor, he met and married a young woman. His wife’s grandmother was living in the United States and wanted them to move there as well. Viktor loved Ukraine and wasn’t interested in leaving, but the grandmother, who was a Christian, encouraged them to apply for visas to go to the US. “You have nothing to lose,” she told them, “There is a slim chance you will be accepted, and if you are, you will know that it was meant to be.”
Viktor and his wife applied, and a few months later were granted refugee status to come to the United States.
Moving across the world was extremely difficult. They didn’t know the language which added to the pressure of finding housing and work. The stress took a toll on their marriage. “I did everything to save the marriage,” Viktor said, “but we ended up getting a divorce, and I became a single dad with joint custody of two small children.”
Viktor became depressed. He worked long hours and kept to himself.
During this time, God sent people to him. One day there was a knock on the door. His neighbors stopped by with a pot of borscht, the national soup of Ukraine. They had looked the recipe up on the internet. “Are you okay, Viktor?” the elderly couple asked. “We never see you.”
Viktor explained about the divorce and took the opportunity to share his faith in Jesus with them.
Another time someone he had met when he was out walking stopped by to encourage him. Viktor ended up sharing the Gospel with him. Three years later he came up to Viktor in a store and gave him a big hug. “You’ll never believe what happened,” he said. “I am now a Christian!”
Viktor marvels at how God sent people to him and used him even during his darkest time.
God has blessed Victor with a beautiful wife and three more precious children. Today he is employed with a local professional fire department, a career that gives him a chance to give back to the country which has given him so much. He is also an active member of his local church where he leads worship music on a rotating basis.
But it is hard for Viktor to watch the news of what is happening in his home country. He has a sister and niece still living in L’viv. They refused to leave because their husbands are not allowed to leave due to martial law. Viktor worries about them and his cousins who are fighting in the war.
Viktor has another niece who escaped to Poland. He is trying to get her to come to the United States.
You might wonder what Viktor’s take on the war is? “I don’t know how the war is going to end,” he said, “but I do know that the Ukrainians will never give up. They will fight to the end.”
Viktor remembers what it was like to live under Soviet oppression. He remembers going to school and having to listen to Soviet propaganda, then coming home to have his grandfather tell him not to listen to anything they tell him. He remembers when all the churches but one were closed. The one Catholic church in his village was left open for old people.
He remembers going to church one Easter when he was a child. The teachers stood outside the church taking down the names of children who attended. On the next Monday, those children were sent back home from school, and they were not able to return until their parents talked to the principal. The principal would lecture them about how it is bad to go to church.
Ukrainians also remember stories from the older generation about mass starvation during the 1930s under the reign of Stalin.
“No Ukrainian ever wants to go through that again. They will fight to the end!”
Viktor stays in touch with his former church from L’viv and maintains a close friendship with the pastor who has organized a small shelter for refugees from eastern Ukraine. He provides food and a place for refugees to sleep. Viktor has collected funds to help with this project.
Viktor appreciates the support from Americans and the rest of the world. He is glad that people are learning the history and geography of his country. “Ukrainians love their country just like Americans love theirs,” he said, “and we want our freedom, too.”
“Please continue praying,” Viktor said, “and if you desire to do more to help Ukraine, please reach out to your local Ukrainian church. They will guide you in the best way to help.”
*background photo by Roman Polyanyk from Pixabay
Addendum: Friends of mine who are former missionaries to Ukraine suggested these possible contacts if you wish to give or learn more: